Wrestling With The Is

March 24, 2009

I see now that I’m not the first person to point this out, but Washington Monthly has an interesting take up on the short-lived life of Culture11 (Rod gets the h/t because I saw it there first).  Before saying something myself, I want to point out two things.  First, from the article itself:

“What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.”

 And then this, from Rod’s discussion of the article:

“As Claes Ryn put it in a penetrating TAC essay, organized conservatism finds itself wrecked today because it abandoned the culture, and taught itself to see the culture only in political terms.What we’ve turned into is a slightly more sophisticated, somewhat more secular version of Joe Carter’s Christian “shit-counters.” And see, this goes back to yesterday’s discussion (which I tried to launch, but which, like every homosexuality-related thread on this blog, gets taken over by the grinds) about why churches and social conservatives have got to find some way to articulate the old verities, the permanent things, in a way that’s compelling to people in this culture. You can’t just stand there and yell, “No!” at whatever the liberals throw out there, and expect that to change minds and win hearts.” [emphasis mine — JLW]

Reminiscent of any famous conservative line from a famous conservative writer?  Pace William F. Buckley, standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” ought not be the underlying principle of any conservative politics.  It’s a good quip, and as such, I don’t think you can claim in good faith that it was meant, as phrased, as a philosophical principle, but still — standing athwart history yelling stop can’t work, and cannot work because we live within history.  While the man who sees his calling as yelling, “Stop!” may be filling a needed role, it can’t be more than a role, and he as well as others need to accept that he will always appear somewhat like Kubrick’s Major Kong in his final moments on camera in Dr. Strangelove.

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

I don’t pretend to do more now than come at a particular aspect of what it must do, but I see it as important: it must appreciate.  The teaching of others — and learning ourselves — of appreciation of culture, and tradition: of what-is, and what-was — though by doing so we vivify the what-was and it remains the what-is.  Cultural prizes, from Homer to Chartres to Keats to those of the present day, are not past so long as they are appreciated and understood and prized.  But the last cannot happen without at least the first, and an effort made toward the second.  The cultural tradition is a living tradition: so are the political, and moral, and religious traditions of our lives; but I can better talk about it in terms of culture.  All of those discussions, of course, are different, but not so much that they can’t be understood by analogy.

I know he’s probably sick of everyone talking about him by now, but E.D. Kain’s recent talk about abandoning the conservative label began to remind me about a similar moment his colleague William had a few years ago (not leading, in the end, to a permanent abandoning of the word), which sent me looking through a bunch of old posts to see my responses to him, and to see what my own struggles with labels looked like then.  What William wrote then, I think, deserves being quoted again:

Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say “I am a conservative” or “I am a liberal” is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.

So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.

You reclaim the word by reclaiming the genre.

Changing it through telling stories, through reclaiming the genre, makes it (to my ear) sound easier than it probably is.  But I don’t mind that.  It’s reassuring—it doesn’t seem impossible.

The story that needs to be rebutted is that which has come out of the weird afterlife of Buckley’s invocation to “Stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’”  While from a certain perspective it’s admirable just as was Hektor’s defense of Troy despite knowing it would inevitably fall.  Society changes; someone has to caution—someone has to lay the gadfly.  But this requires one to accept that yelling, “Stop!” is an act doomed to failure.  History will not stop because it cannot stop.

Without that realization, when the image lapses into dogma, the problem arises, as I’ve said before:

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

The story that needs to be told now, after all, is one that has already been told.  In that regard, I suppose, we’re fortunate.  It’s the story of Jack Burden’s hard-won wisdom in the beautiful closing paragraph of All the King’s Men:

We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among the trees as soundlessly as smoke.  But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.